The St. Louis Cardinals lost their game, and hardly cared. They won the NL Central, which was much more important.
Narrowly avoiding an embarrassing collapse, Albert Pujols and the Cardinals backed their way into a playoff spot Sunday when 2nd place Houston lost 3-1 in Atlanta, eliminating the defending NL champions.
About an hour later, the Cardinals completed a 5-3 loss to Milwaukee. But by then, the final score didn't matter. St. Louis had its 3rd straight division crown, and players whooped it up in the home clubhouse at Busch Stadium.
``I don't think anybody on this club wanted to be associated with mugging that lead,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. ``That's one of those historic things that you'll never forget.
``We wanted to some way, somehow, get into the playoffs, and we did it.''
The rest of the NL playoff picture cleared up when San Diego held off Arizona 7-6 to win the West. The Padres will host St. Louis in Game 1 of their best of 5 series Tuesday at 4:09 p.m. EDT. It's a rematch of their 1st round meeting last year, when the Cardinals cruised to a 3 game sweep.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who beat San Francisco 4-3, wound up with the wild card and a cross country trip to New York to face the Mets in the 1st round. That series starts Wednesday afternoon.
``Turns out the other divisions were worse than our division, producing 2 playoff teams. It didn't look that way for a while,'' Giants manager Felipe Alou said.
In other NL games, it was: Florida 3, Philadelphia 2 in 11 innings; New York 6, Washington 2; Pittsburgh 1, Cincinnati 0; and Chicago 8, Colorado 5.
St. Louis, which lost 9 of its last 12 games, reached the postseason for the 6th time in 7 years. The final out of Houston's game came with 1 out in the bottom of the 5th and the Brewers leading 5-0, prompting a huge ovation from a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium.
La Russa handed out congratulatory hugs in the dugout.
``All right, we'll be the underdogs all day long,'' said ace Chris Carpenter, who will pitch Game 1 against the Padres' Jake Peavy. ``In this situation anything can happen. We saw it with Houston last year.''
La Russa gambled in the regular season finale by holding back Carpenter for a possible playoff opener, reasoning that his struggling team needed 2 starts by the 15 game winner in the 1st round to have a chance.
``Now, we've got a legitimate shot,'' La Russa said. ``Otherwise we'd have gone in with one or two hands tied behind ourselves.
``This guy is as good of a pitcher that there is in major league baseball and we're only going to use him one time in the middle of the series?''
The Cardinals had a 7 game lead with 12 to play, but the cushion had dwindled to a 1/2 game before a 10-5 victory over Milwaukee on Friday coupled with a Houston loss.
St. Louis finished 83-78, its worst record since going 75-86 in 1999 and the worst record by an NL Central champion. The Padres won the NL West at 82-80 last year.
The Brewers knocked out replacement starter Anthony Reyes (5-8) in the 1st inning. Pujols hit his 49th homer for the Cardinals.
Prince Fielder and Geoff Jenkins homered for Milwaukee.
Padres 7, Diamondbacks 6
At Phoenix, Trevor Hoffman held on in a rough 9th inning for San Diego.
The Padres and Dodgers each finished 88-74, and both teams had already clinched playoff spots. San Diego took the division title because of the tiebreaker, the Padres went 13-5 against Los Angeles this season.
Hoffman, the major league saves leader with 482, gave up consecutive homers to Chad Tracy and Conor Jackson but escaped with his 46th save in 51 chances this year.
Woody Williams (12-5) allowed 4 runs and 6 hits in 6 2-3 innings for San Diego.
Arizona's Brandon Webb (16-8), a leading Cy Young Award candidate, allowed 7 runs in 4 innings, his shortest start of the season.
Dodgers 4, Giants 3
At San Francisco, Los Angeles won what might have been Barry Bonds' final game for the Giants.
Bonds made good with his final swing against the archrival Dodgers, hitting a double in the 6th and then calling it a day. Bonds has 734 home runs, 21 from tying Hank Aaron's career record.
Braves 3, Astros 1
John Smoltz (16-9) pitched 6 shutout innings for host Atlanta, and Houston came up short in its comeback.
The Astros trailed the Cardinals by 8 1/2 games on August 19th, but pulled within a 1/2 game of the lead with a 9 game winning streak that ended Friday night at Atlanta.
The Astros went into the final day trailing St. Louis by 1 1/2 games. If Houston had won and St. Louis had lost, the Cardinals would have been forced to play a makeup game Monday against San Francisco.
Pirates 1, Reds 0
Freddy Sanchez had 2 hits while becoming host Pittsburgh's first batting champion in 23 years, and Xavier Nady's 3rd hit of the game drove in the only run.
Sanchez, not a regular when the season began, went 2-4 to finish with 200 hits and a .344 average, 5 points better than Florida's Miguel Cabrera, who went 0-2 against Philadelphia. Sanchez's average was the highest by a Pirates everyday player since Roberto Clemente hit .345 in 1969.
The Reds, shut out in their final 2 games, finished 80-82, their best record since 2000 but their 6th consecutive losing season. The Pirates' 67-95 record was identical to that of last season.
Matt Capps (9-1), a rookie making his 85th appearance, got the victory by retiring 1 batter in the 8th inning.
Mets 6, Nationals 2
At Washington, Frank Robinson was honored before his final game as Nationals manager, and the NL East champion Mets tuned up for the playoffs with a victory behind David Wright and Shawn Green.
Cubs 8, Rockies 5
Juan Pierre hit a go ahead single in a 3 run 7th and host Chicago won what was likely Dusty Baker's final game as manager. After the game, Cubs president and CEO Andy MacPhail resigned.
Chicago finished 66-96, the worst record in the NL.
Baker, without a contract extension after 4 years, was to meet Monday with general manager Jim Hendry and was not expected to be retained.
Marlins 3, Phillies 2, 11 innings
At Miami, Jason Wood hit a bases loaded infield single in the 11th to score the winning run in what was likely the last game with Florida for manager Joe Girardi.
The Marlins lost 13 of their final 18 and finished 78-84, their first losing season since 2002, but better than anticipated for a team that has baseball's lowest payroll, played 22 rookies and started 11-31.
The Phillies finished 85-77.
Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis threw only 19 pitches before leaving with a sore left triceps. Dan Uggla hit his 27th homer.